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Last Updated: Saturday, 2 August, 2003, 08:09 GMT 09:09 UK
Gay bishop debate stirs passions
By Jane Little
BBC religious affairs correspondent in Minneapolis

Bishop-elect Gene Robinson
Robinson said his relationship with his partner is 'sacramental'
The Anglican Church in America - known as the Episcopal Church - is in the middle of a heated argument over whether to ratify the election of a gay man as its next bishop of New Hampshire.

On Friday at the Church's general convention in Minneapolis, those for and against the election of Gene Robinson engaged in an intense and passionate debate over whether the Episcopal Church should have an openly gay and non-celibate bishop.

We're heading for civil war
Convention delegate

The Anglican Church has always been so broad and tolerant that it even allows room for clergy who do not believe in God.

But the issue of homosexuality is causing a serious rift.

The debate is so fervent that one despairing convention delegate said: "We're heading for civil war".

In the spotlight is gay priest Mr Robinson, the divorced father of two who was elected bishop of New Hampshire in June.

According to the Reverend Hays Junkin who headed the election committee, "It was open, it was fair, it was transparent and it was - we believe, spirit-led".

Strong opposition

But it caused a storm of protest worldwide, with conservatives here and abroad calling for a walkout if it is approved.

A statement signed by archbishops from Australia to Nigeria and the West Indies has predicted a "dramatic re-alignment" of the Church.

So why is Mr Robinson at the centre of such a storm?

He is the face of a debate that cuts deep into the theological cultural and political heart of the Church.

Attendants of the Episcopal General Convention praying before the debate began
Clergy and lay people will vote on Robinson 's appointment
For progressives, it is an issue of justice, for conservatives it is one of morality and of upholding "scripture, tradition and reason".

Speakers at the opening debate in Minneapolis were equally passionate on both sides, and often, given that it was about sex, it was personal.

In front of a packed ballroom, Mr Robinson answered a question about why God made human beings sexual, by describing his sexual relationship with Mark Andrews his partner of 14 years as "sacramental" and a reflection of God's love.

Those who support Mr Robinson argue that he is being penalised for being honest about his sexuality.

Homosexuality 'sinful'

Others called on the Church to trust the people of New Hampshire, and the Bishop of Arkansas, Larry Maze, said Anglicans have "a calling to be a different voice in the Bible belt, that voice is tolerant".

But conservatives stressed the importance of chastity outside marriage, and repeatedly appealed to the Bible to uphold their view that homosexuality is sinful.

The former bishop of Pittsburgh, Alden Hathaway, said that supporters of Mr Robinson are "trying to promote an idea that homosexuality has the same bonds as marriage, but it's apples and oranges, it's not the same thing, it's a deviation from God".

So if the governing body votes on Sunday and Monday to confirm Mr Robinson as a bishop, will it split the Church?

Conservatives say it will, and that it will separate Anglicans further from their brothers and sisters in other churches.

Progressives, many of whom also want to create a rite for same-sex blessings, say that we have heard such threats before, notably over the ordination of women into the Episcopal Church - a split did not happen, and there are now women bishops.

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